Rhonda Stampalia is a Dance teacher at Douglas Anderson, and she is coming up on her 30th consecutive year of teaching here. But you wouldn’t know it if you didn’t ask. Despite this milestone, she won’t be having any elaborate or special celebrations. She’ll be celebrating this year the exact same way she celebrates the end of every other year: with family and college friends flying into Jacksonville to attend end-of-year student performances.
She’s actually not the only teacher to have taught at this school for such a long time. Douglas Anderson boasts a number of veteran staff. Simone Aden, Alison LePage, Terry Souder, Michael Higgins and Mark O’Connor are all current teachers who have, along with Stampalia, taught at Douglas Anderson for upwards of 20 years.
All of these teachers have taught here for longer than any of their current students have even been alive. They all can agree that they’ve seen some changes around the school since they first started teaching here.
“I think students used to have a little more respect for the teacher,” said Aiden, a Theatre and English teacher. She went on to explain that that advent of smartphones coupled with easier access to the internet has changed the way she has to teach. She has to be more aware of students who could cheat, because it’s easier than ever for those types of students to take pictures of test answers or copy content for essays from the internet.
Other teachers described different changes they’ve observed. “Because of the diversity among our students has increased over the years, I believe the students now are much more open and welcoming to each other, even with differences among them,” LePage said, adding that this may in some way tie in with students’ love of the arts.
These teachers recognize Douglas Anderson as a unique school, and many acknowledge that that’s what has kept them here for so long. “I know how great this school is,” LePage said. “It’s just an opportunity to meet and work with a lot of different students as well as my colleagues. I’ve been able to grow as a professional here.”
Both LePage and Stampalia said they never thought about leaving DA, with Stampalia adding, “I love the hunger to learn and to develop and grow as an artist, and I feel that it is my job to nurture this growth.”
Aden, while agreeing that DA is indeed a special school, had a lot to say about work ethic. “Students 20 years ago were more self-driven.”
She described how students used to approach her with a monologue or performance they had prepared and then ask her to coach them on it. “Now, they ask me to find them one.”
Aden has taught at DA for more than 20 years, but she’s the only one on the list to not have taught those years consecutively. She left DA in 2007 to pursue her own business. Unfortunately, it was right before the Great Recession, and she ultimately returned in 2010. She’s been here ever since.
Stampalia still enjoys guiding her students through the entire process of dance.
“I think that when you’re younger, you may not realize the impact that you can have on a child’s life as a teacher. For people on the outside, they may not realize the time, passion, and care that teachers put into their work in order to provide for their students.”
Despite their acknowledgment that Douglas Anderson is a great school, most say they themselves would not have attended given the opportunity.
LePage, for example, said that she wouldn’t because she had a passion for marching band. “I was in a marching band in high school, so that kind of eliminates that opportunity because DA doesn’t focus on that. On band skills, yes, but not the fun of the marching band.”
Aden also said that she would not have attended Douglas Anderson. She grew up in Jacksonville, and she attended Episcopal in high school. Episcopal was smaller, and she was actually able to do more theatre there than Douglas Anderson students are able to do today.
Stampalia was the only teacher who said she would have attended DA. She said she would have wanted to audition for Dance, of course. “Without a doubt!”
In the 30 years Stampalia has taught at Douglas Anderson, she says she’s always wished she could take her students on a field trip to Russia because of how many great dancers historically came from there. She wants to experience that history with her students.
“Natalia Makarova had such an impact in the time that I was growing up, as well as Mikhail Baryshnikov, and the Kirov Ballet.”
These teachers have all hit major milestones, and are coming up on even bigger ones. But they don’t treat their 20th or 30th year any differently than they would any other year. LePage feels something special with every year, and not just the ones with round numbers.
“One of the wonders of teaching is just the beginnings and endings. No other job has that; that exciting beginning of the year, and exciting end of the year. Every year has a freshness, and the excitement of ending it.”